by Brian Morton

Whither Stovies?

October 28, 2009 | by Brian Morton

LE SUPERFLU, CHOSE TRES NECESAIRE” says the original Voltaire, not in warning that some avian epidemic is inevitable, but suggesting more gently that excess, superfluity, trimmings are somehow essential to life. The best parts of Jack McLean’s The Compendium of Nosh have, to be honest, not much to do with food at all. They are the ambiguous garnish, the scribble of inedible reduction that makes the book so damnably readable and so utterly bloody useless as a rival to Larousse Gastronomique.

The Urban Voltaire is a noted trencherman, but like all people who really love food he probably enjoys cooking it a fraction more than actually eating it. In that, he is cheerfully unreconstructed and robustly impatient of kitchen fads and frou-frou, though he does manage to find a place for fufu. Though largely avoiding exotic dishes, he manages to find a place for all sorts of soul food like that (Ghanaian, I think) yam stew which has its equivalents all round the Atlantic rim. You might say it’s the Accra equivalent of stovies.

Jack’s antecedents are Scottish Highland and Hungarian, and he’s understandably very hot on the latter cuisine. There’s advice on the proper pronunciation and consistency of gulyas, as well as other Magyar delights such as porkolt, galuskas and tokanys. He’s also brilliant on Jewish food, which must have afforded a cheerfully exotic alternative in the Glasgow of the 50s, before the big curry takeover. He’s perhaps understandably not so hot on native Scottish fare, dismissing stovies offhandedly as one of our “few national dishes”, and predictably favouring krumpli (stovies with paprika), introduced to this country 60 years ago by Hungarian refugee Egon Ronay. Tucked away in a bleak little entry on Scottish food – “there isn’t much cooking in my native land, though once there was” – he makes routine reference to the high quality of our natural food resources, fish, shellfish, flesh and Ayrshire potatoes, all industry-standard as far as most chefs and food writers are concerned. Therein lies the rub, or part of it. The very quality of Scottish produce often militates against the more elaborated cooking that we now off-puttingly understand as haute cuisine. There is much art, but no theatre, in throwing a well cut and hung steak on a griddle, or rummling fresh mussels round a pot. Jack vouchsafes a story about eating moules in northern France, his first meal “abroad” – no mention of clabbie dhus, an elder cousin of the mussel, which unless done dead right present as marine-flavoured shock absorbers – but without much further acknowledgement that 500 years ago Scottish cooking and French cooking were pretty much one and the same.

The Compendium is pretty strong on Jack’s revulsions. This is a man who will not eat mince and potatoes, and happily tries to put off anyone who might with the story of the Donegal man presented with a dish of mince by his Derry hostess: “Naw, naw, whoever chawed that can swally it”. He does elsewhere add the detail of Jock Stein’s favourite pre-match meal of fillet steak, minced and fried, and later garnished (by an Irish chef) with anchovy fillets, which Jock apparently thought were bacon. How many great results were fuelled on that? He’s not over-excited about potatoes, either, which are one of the great joys of growing and cooking, buried treasure and the subtlest spectrum of tastes.

He mentions the usual suspects, Kerr’s Pinks, Golden Wonder, King Edwards, the ubiquitous Maris Piper and the “now rarely seen Duke of York’s”. Not rarely seen on my patch, Jack. Two rows of them are currently nestling under the seaweed and bracken of my lazy beds, with two more of the red variant. And I wonder if you’ve tried the old Shetland Black, best sauteeing potato in the world; or Jack Dunnett’s new-fangled Mimi, which can be eaten cranberry-size, like the Indians do?

And while we’re on the subject, and still in this apostrophising vein, what the hell are you on about in the entry on chips? I suspect an act of sabotage, instigated by the health fascists of the Scottish Executive. One sure way of putting people off a food is by making it badly, and there are so many subtle bear traps in your dozen lines of making frites that 90% of people will get it hideously wrong. Temperature is everything, and on that you’re dismayingly vague and misleading. But probably, unreconstructedly, right about the decline of school domestic science now that boys are allowed in under equal opps rulings. Boys are meant to learn cooking from their mothers, from older men in bothies, or as lonely empirics, reverting to carry-outs at the last minute until one day, gloriously, they get it right. And I imagine that’s how you started. End of apostrophe.

Useless though it largely is as a guide to cooking, the Compendium is still a compulsive read. Some of the anecdotal stuff is pretty familiar, like the seemingly preposterous quantity of potato (still harping on spuds!) consumed daily by the pre-Famine Irish. Others are less well known, like that of the infamous Emma Cadona, who threatened a xenophobic crowd with hot chip pan (presumably exactly the right temperature) and a savagely accurate comment about the deep frying of something marginally less disgusting than a Mars bar. There’s advice, too, of a Kingsley Amis-ish sort. Amaretto may be a suitable digestif for a “young girl”, but for an “old girl”, grappa is the thing. The one time I tried grappa on a “mature woman” she accused me of a switcheroo with Zippo fluid and the date foundered. But only because she hadn’t the class to recognise a fragrant nebbiolo. Tramp.

Which brings us to the arcane. Tramps and gypsies allegedly eat hedgehog. Jack is sceptical but cites George Borrow and Walter de la Mare (does he mean Walter Starkie?) by way of literary provenance. I ate hedgehog once, in Ireland. I wish I could say it tasted of chicken. More like a cross between pork and woodcock. Actually, no, it tasted exactly like hedgehog.

The philological arcane are a bit more erratic. Why do we need to know that chutney derives from chatni, a bit like saying shampoo derives from champu, when there’s not a loyal murmur up the page about Johnny Foreigner’s attempt to claim “chowder” as a version of chaudiere, rather than the good old-fashioned “chowter”. And not far away, Jack prefers to take a dig at the Bright Young Things who crowd into TGI Fridays for A Long Slow Comfortable Screw or a Long Island Iced Tea or some other “cocktail”, over any attempt to give an explanation of the word itself, which has been exercising logophiles since the 1920s.

Sometimes there’s a bit of science: cod liver oil is an aperient, eel (which he doesn’t like) is a catadromous fish, unlike freshwater-born salmon which is anadromous. Sometimes we don’t get science: like the chips. He makes a promising start on omelettes (equivalent to splitting the atom in this house) and throws in a valuable line from Elizabeth David about stirring rather than beating the eggs, but then resorts to why-oh-whyish regrets about the poor standard of omelette-making in this country without a further word as to how to get it right. And no mention of variants like tortilla (only the “Mexican” kind) or piper-ade.

If the essence of writing any reference book is making sure you have entries for Q and X, he manages to get in a needless dig at Quorn, for which hunger is a much better substitute, and something on xerophagy, the habit of eating dried food, which makes my saintly mother-in-law’s dachsund a devout xerophage. Napoleon’s Science Balls (a stray one just crunched under my sole) leads us by Jack’s own free-association method to matzoh balls and another very famous and frequently misquoted story about Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller’s mother (“Delicious! But do you eat any other part of the matzoh”); which leads us quite logically to aphrodisiacs; which takes us on a half-skip to asparagus (or “sparrow grass”) and how best to eat it. Conventional wisdom says hollandaise; Jack says melted butter, and then fails to mention ‘grass’s most famous characteristic, which is to make your pee smell like mown lawn, something to do with chlorophyll, I think.

And it wouldn’t be a reference book if some smartass reviewer didn’t line up a few “astonishing omissions”. I was sorry to see Jack pass up an opportunity to savage nouvelle cuisine, though I guess it’s such a fagged-out concept now that it’s only of archaeological interest. Also, why lament the decline of cod and give us an entry on Icelandic hakarl (basically rotten shark meat; hakarl is what you say when they dig it up for your tea) and not mention that neglected star of the sea, the hake, which the sanguinary Spanish and Portuguese keep all to themselves? Then, why devote space to cloud ear fungus, which is best rehydrated, drained and then thrown away, and not to good old Scottish chanterelles, which we can pluck by the handful out of the moss under the birches? (We do, though, swither green-ishly over the gulls’ eggs at the local colony, once fraudulently passed off as plovers’ eggs in unscrupulous restaurants, but nowadays so declared.) Equally, in between orange (in some cultures the source of original sin, rather than the apple) and osso buco, wasn’t there a chance to give the idea of “organic” food a good kicking? What’s inorganic food when it’s at home? Something like atonal music, perhaps.

We haven’t touched on drink. Or at least you haven’t. By this stage, I palpably have. Jack got the Compendium gig after showing up at a seminar as the panel expert on whisky, only to find himself bested on that subject (his entry here isn’t revelatory, either) but well ahead on culinary lore. I was intrigued to find that he doesn’t much enjoy wine with food. This is important. Only a tiny proportion of the population have a clue how to marry the two. When it works, it’s heavenly. When it fails, you might as well have gone for Tizer, or one of Emma Cadona’s deep-fried “specials”. Like making chips, it’s a job for experts. Intriguingly, though, he also doesn’t enjoy a beer, claiming that the last one gave him worse diarrhoea than I had after that hedgehog (though the poitinmight have been to blame). This, I’m afraid, is heresy. As any passing anthropologist will tell you, the dateline of any civilization is fixed to the first appearance of brewing. The only sure way to tell that Edinburgh is a civilised city isn’t the castle or, God help us, the Scott Monument, but the whiff of hops and yeast you get on the way through Gorgie. There’s all the meaning in the world in the phrase “a civilised pint”, which means a properly drawn beer (ideally fizzy, unlike the Yorkshire stuff that did for Jack) and drunk in company and in a smoke-ringed but decently ventilated public place. The Compendium of Nosh isn’t going on the kitchen shelf, but will be getting a going over – for and against – for years to come. I also suspect it has a future as a touring gig, post-prandial philosophy, Jack with his malt in hand, the rest of us with our civilised pints or digestifs. No smoke, but lots of fire and heaps of fun.

From this Issue

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by James Robertson

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